COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Tom Vitorino – Reflections on COVID-19 and the Thursday Night Theater Club

Actor, producer, and co-founder of Thursday Night Theater Club (TNTC), Tom Vitorino has appeared in film, television, commercials, soap operas, and live theater. Most recently, he starred in The Elephant Man, the tale of tragically deformed John Merrick, at the historic El Portal Theatre. Tom graciously took time from his busy schedule to interview in March 2020.

Vanessa Vaughn, Jennipher Lewis, Robin Roth, and Tom Vitorino in THE ELEPHANT MAN – Photo by David Ruano

When did your theater company first begin? Were you involved from the beginning? Who/how/why/where was it founded?

TV:  Alice Walker and I started “Thursday Night Theater Club” at her kitchen table in 2017. While the company has no long career in the sense of decades, anyone who’s ever taken on the task of starting a theater company ages a decade in the first year!

Alice and I wanted to put on plays that held a mirror up to the audience. That was the reason we started the company. The plays we’ve produced deal with very real social issues, tend to be timeless, and have large casts. We wanted to involve large groups of people from all social groups. It is about activating the idea of change, some sort of mind and spirit expansion, even if for just those associated with the production.”

Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker in “A View from the Bridge” – Photo by Cierra Danielle

Have you had to close down any productions due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run – or do you have any upcoming productions – which are affected?

TV:  I was at the pre-production stage of Anne Nelson’s The Guys. This was my new endeavor outside of TNTC. This play takes place during the period right after 9/11. It really amplifies the idea of how complete strangers can lean on each other in the most difficult of times. We’ve had a few get-togethers and were set to meet on March 15, but we’ve postponed all of our meetings. We were just about at that point to really dive in, so that is on hold. Ronnie Marmo is directing. Robyn Cohen is playing the role of Joan, and I will be Nick. This will open at Theater 68 in the NoHo Arts District on September 11, 2020. Yes, I am projecting that we return to a sense of normalcy. I have to.

Tom Vitorino and Alice L. Walker in “The Elephant Man” – Photo by David Ruano

Over the past weeks, has COVID-19 impacted on your group in any way?

TV: I think right in front of me is the fear, the anxiety, and the depression that I have never really experienced like this. Usually those feelings are in the moment; but, with this deadly outbreak, you go to bed with it. You awake, and those feelings are still there. Every cough creates a sense of panic!  New terms like “social distancing” are forever a part of the world; and that distance – while 110% needed – creates the inability to physically comfort a friend, a stranger, or anyone outside of your “home stay” crew. I spend a lot of time on Zoom, and it is rather ironic that the very medium of online connectivity that many felt was not a real connection is now in many cases the only connection we have left at this point. My wife Stephanie and I have stayed at home since March 11 except for a few trips to the grocery store wearing whatever PPE (there’s another new term) we have. We are three weeks into this situation. If I should meet eyes with another shopper while grocery shopping, there’s this knowing nod, this unspoken support of each other. The “social distancing” that we all employ is a shared experience is a sign of solidarity against this virus and an act of love for life itself.  So all of this makes me even more grateful for many things I have taken for granted.

Ethan Micael, Tom Vitorino, and Jeremy Falla in “A View from the Bridge” – Photo by Cierra Danielle

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Having virtual meetings? Streaming?

TV:  We have discussed when the time is right to start some readings on Zoom. At this time, I just think that people need space to figure out the day-to-day life changes that this virus has created. There is a lot of information to process, and that reality is front and center every day. But, in the near future, we will find a way forward.

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

TV:  In hard times like World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and 9/11, people needed entertainment to forget – if just for a few minutes or a few hours – about the reality just outside the living room, cinema, or theater door. Some look at “the arts” as being non-essential in these difficult times; but to me, that is like saying love is non-essential. Art will always be essential to the healing of the world and the existence of a loving, caring humankind. Los Angeles is an amazing, resilient town, and we will come out of this stronger than we went in. As for theater goers, the theater needs them as much, if not more, than it needs the performers. We are all counting on them, as we always do; and they have never let us down.

I understand that you are offering something special to theater patrons for your upcoming productions. Will you tell us more about that?

TV:  We had always planned on offering free tickets to firefighters for our upcoming production of The Guys,, since it deals with the subject matter of eulogizing eight firefighters who lost their lives in 9/11. It just felt like the right thing to do. The COVID-19 outbreak has shifted our social awareness, and we have a responsibility as artists to our community. Any student, healthcare worker, first responder, and anyone 65 years or older, is added to our comp list. We will have to figure out how we administer that. Maybe half the house will be reserved for those groups. Everyone else will be “pay what you can afford,” but that will be our policy.

Do you have any closing thoughts or words of encouragement for your patrons?

TV:  You are not alone in your thoughts. We all share those same fears. But know that this will eventually end, and hopefully we come out a little better than we were before this happened. I wish I could line all of you up and give each of you a hug, but that might not happen again for a good while. So, wrap your arms around yourself and give a little squeeze. That hug’s from me.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Ronnie Marmo on the Move – A Coast-to-Coast Artist

Originally from the East Coast, actor / producer / director / writer / chief bottle washer Ronnie Marmo has managed to call both the East and West coast home during his life-long career. Perhaps best known for his stellar performance in I’m Not a Comedian… I’m Lenny Bruce, which he also penned – directed, by the way, by the talented Joe Mantegna – or his three year / 150 episode run on General Hospital just a few years ago, Ronnie traveled from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago to entertain audiences far and wide. With critically acclaimed performances in dozens of plays, including Bill W. and Dr. Bob and Tony ‘N Tina’s Wedding, Ronnie co-founded Theatre 68 Los Angeles 19 years ago. The New York Chapter opened nine years ago now, making Theatre 68 a bi-coastal home for many artists. Despite his perpetual-motion-machine style, Ronnie took time out to interview during the COVID-19 “holiday” from live theater.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce – Photo by Doren Sorell

How is the COVID-19 ban on live theater affecting you and Theatre 68?

Ronnie Marmo:  We tried to keep the Lenny Bruce show open in Chicago as long as we could. We got as far as Sunday, March 15 before we ultimately postponed the show and went dark for the time being. For our last four performances, we deliberately sold only a quarter of the 180 seats in the theater to allow for social distancing; and we sanitized everything that people might touch. In 25 years, I’ve never missed a performance. Now we don’t have a choice, but this virus is scary and it’s important to respect the people who know more than us about COVID-19 safety.

The LA and NY Chapters of Theatre 68 are currently dark for productions; however, the community is sticking together with our Monday Night Actors Gym on both coasts. It’s a hard time right now because many of us don’t know much about this virus. I’m concerned for theaters both small and large around the world because, generally speaking, theater is not a very lucrative business; and many of us survive month to month. After all, we don’t get into the theater business to get rich. We do it because we can’t help ourselves; we love it. It’s a sickness of sorts (laughing). My hope is that people will continue to support the arts. For example, if you currently have tickets for a show or event, it would be wonderful if people can move those tickets to a performance down the road as opposed to asking for a refund – but ONLY if they could afford to do so.

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce – Photo by Doren Sorell 2

Tell us about your plans for the future. Will you continue with I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce? Do you have any new shows planned?

RM:  First and foremost, we plan on bringing the Lenny Bruce show back to Chicago just as soon as it is safe to do so. Also, we plan on having a few pop-up performances here in Los Angeles. We have just signed with Columbia Artists Theatrical, and they are working on a national tour. We have already had an offer for early 2021 in Tampa, Florida; and many other venues have inquired. But I assume that, with the virus, things may be delayed a bit. We will see.

Let me tell you a bit more about Theatre 68 and our productions. We have great leadership on both Coasts, and we’ve been in constant meetings making plans and finding ways to keep the company inspired during this very tough time.

I plan to keep moving forward in hopes that all will be well soon enough / Combined on both coasts, we have 90 actors who take part in our NOW virtual Monday Night Actor’s Gym. I’m constantly trying to help keep everyone engaged. We’re working really hard with lots of writing assignments, monologue jams, anything we can do virtually to continue to grow as artists. We’re constantly producing on both coasts. Right now, we’re working on Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. It’s a great play, a really cool play. It’s sort of a contemporary version of Anton Chekhov’s, Seagull. We plan to open in June in Los Angeles. We’re having virtual auditions next week, and we plan to move forward as if it will happen, even if maybe we have to postpone it. In NY, we are in the middle of developing seven original one-act plays written by NY company members. We’re going into virtual auditions for that as well in the coming weeks.

Monday night at Theatre 68’s virtual gym – Photo by Ronnie Marmo

Any final thoughts on live theater’s survival during a pandemic?

RM:  Our survival depends on how kind the landlords are to theater owners. I’m going to work my pants off to keep this thing going for all involved. I feel that enthusiasm is the key to life, and that certainly has been the case for me. People have asked me how I’ve found success in different areas of show business, and I simply tell them – I do my best to finish what I start.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Ronnie Marmo at Lenny Bruce

Spotlight Series: Meet Ronnie Marmo – An Actor, Director, Producer, Playwright, and Artistic Director of Theatre 68 in NoHo

This Spotlight focuses on Ronnie Marmo, an actor, director, producer, playwright, and Artistic Director of Theatre 68 who has been touring the country with his dynamic solo show I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. I attended the show more than once and was excited to hear the news of its New York City and Chicago production dates, which of course are now on hold. If you missed the show, here’s a link to my review.

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your own theatrical background?

Ronnie Marmo (RM): On stage, I have starred in more than 30 plays. A few of my favorites include my portrayal of Bill Wilson in Bill W. and Dr. Bob, Silva in Baby Doll, Earl in the Los Angeles Premiere of The Late Henry Moss, Danny in Danny and The Deep Blue Sea, and Satan in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

I completed an audio book in which I portray Lenny Bruce in Lenny’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Most recently, I wrote and still perform in the long-running, critically-acclaimed and award-winning show, I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce in Chicago (also in Los Angeles and New York), After 305 total performances across all three cities, we are still going strong. And still under the direction of Joe Mantegna.

As a director, I have staged over 50 productions and produced about 100 in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. I was the Artistic Director and Producer of the critically acclaimed first ever 13 by Shanley Festival; which enjoyed a six-month run. I received the Robert Pastorelli Rising Star Award for achievements as an actor, writer, director and producer at the 2010 Garden State Film Festival.

Most importantly, I am proud to continue to serve as the Artistic Director of Theatre 68 (68 Cent Crew Theatre Company) in Los Angeles and New York City.

(SB): What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

(RM): We were in production in Chicago for the solo show I wrote and in which I star, I’m Not A Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce. March 15th was my 85th and final (for now) performance in Chicago. That decision was made since the town was shutting down around us, and I felt the best thing for us to do was stop performing and for me to head back to Los Angeles to be near my daughters.

At the same time, both the LA and NY chapters of Theatre 68 were in pre-production for new shows. In LA, we were in the casting stage for the play Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. We are slated to open in early June, and have decided to move all of our auditions and pre-production to a virtual platform, hoping we will get to open on time. Of course, we are prepared to postpone if need be for everyone’s safety during the pandemic.

In NY, our company was just about to go into casting for an evening of seven one-act plays, all written by Theatre 68 members. We were slated to open late May, which seems lightly unrealistic now. But as said above, we will continue on as if we will open as planned and move things out if need be.

To say I am heartbroken for both chapters would be an understatement. I love these artists and so we will do what we can. But obviously, safety is first for them as well as our supporters.

(SB): How did you communicate the shutdown with your cast and production team?

(RM): I was in constant contact with them throughout the entire process. But quite honestly, as the Artistic Director “the buck stops here” in moments like this, and I could not have made these decisions every step of the way without the incredible leaders I have at Theatre 68 on both coasts.

We communicated over video conferencing, phone calls and back and forth email threads. We used any and every platform possible given the circumstances at that moment. Although, I have to say. for someone who had no idea what ‘Zoom’ was a few months ago, it’s become the biggest part of my life now (laughing).

(SB): I am in the same position in that I must also learn how to use “Zoom” in order to be part of online meetings as well. So, we have more than our mutual love of PB&J sandwiches in common!

(RM): My go-to meal before shows!

(SB):  What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown?

(RM): In the Theatre world, the only thing that was actually on the docket that has now seemingly been delayed was the booking and logistics for the Lenny Bruce National Tour. We signed with Columbia Artists Theatrical and they just began fielding offers right before COVID-19 hit.

While productions have been temporarily affected, one major shift in our Theatre 68 community has been that we moved our Monday Night Actors Gym to a virtual platform. To me, the productions we do are fantastic and we are blessed to have done over 100 of them. But the heartbeat of our company is the fact that we get together every Monday night on both coasts and have a 3-hour “class” of sorts where we hold each other accountable with scene work, monologues, improv, cold readings, writing assignments, etc. What makes it very special is that everyone in the company has a voice – there isn’t just one individual teacher. Transitioning from us being together on stage every Monday night to moving to Zoom has been the biggest adjustment to the company.

I’m excited to announce that we’ve had two successful Monday Night Gyms in NY and LA so far, and they have been inspiring to everyone involved. We’re still very focused on acting of course, but I’ve taken this opportunity to give our artists writing assignments with deadlines. I always preach taking your own career into your own hands and creating your own work. Now they have that opportunity more than ever.

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

(RM): Well, it’s funny you mention that. What started out as a silly idea and something to pass the time about 9 days ago, has become something that many people seem to look forward to watching every day. I have started a Facebook and Instagram live web-show called A Bachelor’s Guide to Do-mes-ti-ca-tion with Ronnie Marmo! The first 8 episodes (days) have felt to be more of a cooking show (since that’s where I need the most work – I basically can’t cook… nor have I ever had to do so for myself and think I single-handedly kept all the take out restaurants in business.

(SB): I watched the episode where you were driving around your neighborhood and asking viewers about how to make chicken parmesan, then took us inside Pinocchio’s Deli to purchase what you needed. I really enjoyed the spur-of-the-moment and interactive format, making those watching feel as if we were in there with you.

(RM): I’m trying to mix it up a bit and tomorrow we might just do some laundry together. It’s interesting how I end up having severe meltdowns and get hurt every episode, but we’re having a lot of fun and there have been a lot of laughs! Honestly, I’ve learned how to cook eight dishes so far thanks to help of all my viewers.  Maybe a cookbook is on the horizon? (more laughs)

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the L.A. Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(RM): I’m very proud that Theatre 68 is a part of the NoHo Arts Theatre scene. I have spoken to a dozen or so other theatres in the area and I’m very concerned that many of them will not recover and continue on after COVID-19. We have all been in constant communication and are trying to help each other. I will say, like any other crisis, this has brought us all closer together. I’m trying to encourage all of us to stay positive and try to stay in the day that we’re in and not project too far into the future because there are so many unknowns. I’m going to fight like hell to keep Theatre 68 and all the other Theatres in the NoHo Arts District alive and thriving.

Lastly, I just want to say “Thank You” to Broadway World for all of the support it gives to all the theatres small, medium, and large. There is never enough advertising dollars and generally speaking, we always need a little more enthusiasm and support for what we do. Broadway World and other press outlets have really kept us afloat even when things are great and especially when the road has become a bit rocky. So thank you for your constant support.

(SB): Thanks so much! It’s always my pleasure to get the word out about shows at theaters of all sizes in the greater Los Angeles area, and I appreciate all the kind words of support from readers of my reviews and these Spotlight Series interviews on Broadway World. This writer always likes to know my articles are being read and my contributions to the LA Theatre Community are helping to keep us united as the powerful group of artists I know we are.

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Ashton’s Audio Interview: Sam Henry Kass (Executive Consultant for the television series Seinfeld) and the cast of ‘A FLOCK OF MACAWS’ at Theatre 68

A young woman, abandoned at birth, finds the woman she believes to be her birth mother– What should be a reunion/reconciliation of sorts, turns into a combination of mutual interrogation, the absurdity of potential paternal candidates, with back stories straight out of an urban modern day, “Alice in Wonderland. Abandonment is the theme, but the ranting’s and ravings regarding everything from pop culture to politics,
takes this moment and delivers a roller coaster ride, filled with everything from rage to contrition. Along the way, we meet an array of bizarre paternal candidates, as well as a young Actress, who stumbles into this world, eager to fill any void or role necessary. “Mothers & Daughters— It doesn’t get any easier, when they actually meet.”*
Enjoy this interview about “A FLOCK OF MACAWS” by Sam Henry Kass (Executive Consultant for the television series Seinfeld) at Theatre 68, running until Oct 20th. You can listen to this interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage. For tickets and more info Click here.
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*taken from the website

Joe Mantegna Speaks His Mind on Theatre 68, Directing, & the Infamous Comic Mind of Lenny Bruce

Theatre 68‘s world premieres I AM NOT A COMEDIAN…I’M LENNY BRUCE, opening June 23, 2017. With the blessings of Lenny’s daughter Kitty Bruce and the Lenny Bruce Foundation, Theatre 68‘s artistic director Ronnie Marmo has written this solo show reprising his previous 2010 role as Lenny from LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED). Directing Ronnie will be Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna, also known to television viewers as an actor and a director of Criminal Minds.
We managed to persuade Joe to take a few moments from rehearsals to answer a few of our queries.
Thank you for taking a break from your rehearsals for this interview. What specific aspects attracted you to this Theatre 68 production?
Well, my past experience with them. I met Ronnie and some company members years ago in a movie and I really liked their energy. Theatre 68 also reminds me of the Organic Theater out of Chicago. I have a lot of respect for what Ronnie and the company do. They get out there and create content. That’s the key to getting anywhere in this business. Don’t wait. You just have to get out there and do it. 
Lenny Bruce had a pretty controversial career with his numerous arrests for using obscenities in his act. Were you aware of him in your teenage years?

Yes, I was well aware of Lenny Bruce. I wound up doing the play LENNY in Chicago in 1974 and understudied the lead part. I remember seeing films of him, although I had never seen him live. I was well aware of what he did, and years later, I did a movie with Richard Pryor. All of the comedians today owe a lot to Lenny because he broke down a lot of barriers. It’s taking freedom of speech to its purest definitions.
As a budding actor, what did you think of Lenny Bruce and his routines?
The same way I think about him now. He was a special artist. He wasn’t just an artist, he had such social commentary in his humor. He was very unique. A lot of times artists who are breaking ground are not recognized in their own time. Just like Van Gogh cutting off his ear. Lenny Bruce is someone who was much more appreciated later on. No different than Martin Luther King, Jr. People who were killed and vilified, and now, they have a holiday named after them. 
You have been onstage (debuting in a Chicago production of HAIR in 1969) and in front of the camera for years now. When and what made you say, “But what I want to do is direct!”?
I don’t know if I have ever said that. It was a natural evolution. I just took to it and I enjoyed it when I did it. I never gave up my day job, so to speak. I’ve directed in the theater a fair amount of times. I’ve done eight or nine episodes of Criminal Minds. Once I felt confident about it, I enjoyed it. I’m glad I don’t have to make a choice between being just an actor or just a director. 
Was your Tiffany Theater production of David Mamet’s LAKEBOAT, with Ed O’Neil and George Wendt in 1994, the first play you directed?
That’s a good question. I directed a lot of little things before that. I think this was the first full-length with a full audience. I directed scenes and auditions for people before that. LAKEBOAT the play was successful, and then, we did the film of it after that. I gained a lot of confidence after that. 
What fond memories do you have of that production of LAKEBOAT?
I had a lot of fond memories. I hired a lot of people I knew and respected. I brought in Andy Garcia, Charles Durning, Denis Leary, Peter Falk, Robert Forrester. I had a great cast in the movie as well. I had fond memories of both the play and the film. It was a nice evolution. I’m glad I was able to do both. 
As one who’s worked on both sides of the camera, and both on and off the theatre boards; do you feel you have a better understanding or a shorthand communication when speaking to actors you’re directing?
Yes, definitely. I have worked with a lot of directors who are actors. There is a certain common language we can speak. There is something to be gained from that. If you have an actor who has a flare for directing, it can cut through a lot to create a nice shorthand. 
Also, as one who’s worked on and off stage, what advice would you give to a neophyte auditioning for you?
I would say, it’s all about the preparation. Come in as prepared as you can. You won’t always get the role. 90% of the time, it has nothing to do with your talent. You must give it your best shot. Most of the time, it has something to do with “you’re too short, too tall, etc.” You have to come in prepared with the attitude, “I am here to solve your problem.” You must be able to take direction, and feel good that you did your best with your preparation. The more prepared you are, the more you can say that this is the best you got. I think if you have decent chops, eventually it will happen for you. It’s happened to me, I did things half-ass when I was younger, and I learned from it. You have to go in there and feel that you nailed it. When I bring people in and someone will knock my socks off, but that person may not be the best for the role, I will pull them aside and I will tell them that. I will bring them back three, four or five times and then, finally, they will get something that fits them. You want the reputation of someone who auditions well. Eventually, you will be perfect for the role, and that will lead to something else, and then something else after that. 
What would you like the Theatre 68 audiences to leave with after Ronnie takes his curtain call?
That it was a night well-spent. That they got their money’s worth. That it was a better time than staying home or going to the movies. That they liked it enough to tell their friends to see it.
Thank you again, Mr. Mantegna!
For ticket availability and schedule of performances thru July 29, log onto